Ernesto Valverde’s future at Athletic Club is currently a mystery. If reports are to be believed, he has an offer on the table to become the new Barcelona manager at season’s end and that is certainly a lucrative position to turn down. In the past he has rejected both Barcelona and Real Madrid, but his next decision is is definitely in question. Txingurri has coached the most matches in Athletic history and has had tremendous success with promoting youth players who have gone on to become stars at the San Mames. If he does make his exit, whoever follows will have big shoes to fill.
Luckily for Athletic, the perfect replacement is already in house and has been groomed for the position for several years now. That man is Bilbao Athletic manager, Cuco Ziganda.Following a career that saw him play in over 250 games for Athletic, Ziganda went in to coaching. He had a spell at Osasuna, where he grew up, and Xerez before taking over Bilbao Athletic back in 2011. No one was outwardly saying it at the time, but his taking over the reserve team was viewed as an eventual stepping stone to the first team. In 2013 Valverde returned to the club and has had tremendous success. He has had the Lions in European competition constantly and won the historic Spanish Super Cup over Barcelona. However, Valverde has never really been viewed as a long term coach.
Throughout his career, Valverde has never stuck around anywhere for long. In fact, his current five year run at Athletic is his longest tenure in one place during his coaching career. He comes from the school of thought that believes that managers shouldn’t stay in one place too long because they lose their effect on players. Many believe that his decision to stay at Athletic for so long comes solely down to his love for the club and appreciation of the unique identity. Of course, the club wants to keep Valverde around as long as possible, but they have always known that it is more likely that he won’t be around for an extended period of time.
With Valverde not being seen as a long term option at manager, all eyes have been on Ziganda, who is quite the opposite. Ziganda has always been outspoken about his desire to one day coach the first team and has even hinted at the fact that he would stay as long as the club would let him. Club legend Joseba Etxeberria has also shared these sentiments, saying that it is his dream job to manager Athletic and he is currently coaching feeder club CD Basconia. Between Ziganda and Etxeberria, Athletic believe they could very well have their own version of a Sir Alex Ferguson type of manager who would be solely committed to the club for many many years.
Athletic have been grooming Ziganda for the first team job since 2011 and it only makes sense that he would be promoted if Valverde does leave for Barcelona. While there is nothing official saying that this will happen, there are conversations going on behind closed doors saying that Ziganda is without a doubt plan A if Valverde departs, with Las Palmas boss Quique Setien the plan B option.Naturally, the Basque giants are looking for a few specific things in their potential next manager. They want someone committed to the club and it’s ideology, someone who will use the youth system and devote themselves to player development, and someone who they believe can keep the team competitive going forward. Ziganda checks the first two boxes with certainty. His love for the club and desire to coach the first team is without question, while his commitment to youth is already established. His ability to keep the team playing at a high level is the only doubt right now. His spells with Osasuna and Xerex did not go well, but it is also fair to say that he did not have much talent to work with.
Just looking at his time so far with Bilbao Athletic, Ziganda has been a strong coach that has brought great results. Not only has he kept the team playing at a high level despite constantly losing talent to the first team and loans, he even helped them achieve promotion to the second division two years ago. Ziganda has grown a lot since 2011 and everyone who has played for him as referred to him as a player’s coach and given his immense praise. In fact, several second division clubs have looked at him to take over their coaching vacancies, but he has rejected offers in hopes of becoming the Athletic manager in the near future.
Strictly speaking, the only question mark about Ziganda right now is how will he fare back in the top flight. We won’t know that answer without giving him the chance to prove himself and lead the first team. Regardless, there are no other real options to replace Valverde that carry the same passion and commitment to the club that Ziganda would bring. Simply put, he’s been the plan for over five years now and if Valverde does leave, Cuco Ziganda is the perfect man for the job.